It’s some time since I wrote a book review. I’ve recently read several books that I’ve meant to write about, yet somehow events have overtaken me. But this book is so brilliant that I don’t want to try to offer excuses!
Set in the Belfast Troubles, The Good Son tells the story of Mickey Donnelly’s last summer holiday before he goes to ‘Big School’. McVeigh cleverly captures the texture of the Ardoyne by presenting the tale entirely through Mickey’s eyes, but in such a way that the reader gets glimpses of the sinister adult world that exists in a kind of parallel universe to the squabbles, make-believe and silly but cruel playground fights that are lived with such intensity by the children of the neighbourhood. Mickey’s narrative is at once extremely funny and full of pathos. He tries to be brave and to help his mother and little sister and is often wise beyond his years, but the ten-year-old that he is reasserts himself when he least expects it, often at the most inconvenient moments.
McVeigh’s portrayal of a poor Irish Catholic family is a modern take on the classic Irish story. It belongs to a literary tradition that includes the work of James Joyce, Sean O’Casey and Frank O’Connor, yet McVeigh speaks with a strikingly original voice of his own. Mickey’s Mam isn’t Stephen Dedalus’s sainted martyr of a mother or Sean O’ Casey’s dignified but tragic Juno, though her character shares elements displayed by both, but she’s also a boisterous daughter of the slums, not above slapping her small son ‘because she feels like it’ or giving him a good tongue-lashing, yet also full of love and care for all her four children, including Mickey’s detestable elder brother Paddy. She even shows some kind of residue of affection for the ne’er-do-well husband and father who flits in and out of their lives, a masterful depiction of the classic Irish drunkard. She holds down several dead-end jobs that just about provide her family with subsistence, but she doesn’t feel sorry for herself. Secretly, she is also helping the paramilitaries, though whether she is being coerced into this is never quite clear.
Above all, it is the dialogue in this novel that holds the reader spellbound. McVeigh manages to convey the lilt and dynamic cut-and-thrust of the Belfast dialect without overdoing it with too much local fussiness (his judicious repetitive deployment of a handful of words, such as ‘scundered’ and ‘lumber’ is extremely effective). Also brilliant is his use of nicknames to show the child’s universe that Mickey inhabits: Ma’s-a-Whore, Measles, Fartin’ Martin, Glue Boy and Glue Girl, Wee Maggie. Mickey’s world is fragmented, a large dollop of drab reality mixed with small sips from the many forms of popular culture that he drinks in indiscriminately to nourish his imagination: Doris Day, John Wayne, Darth Vader and Yogi Bear all make unexpected appearances in The Good Son.
I can’t write any more without giving too much away. I’ve read The Good Son during the course of this weekend. I can’t claim to have completed it at one sitting, but I did resent every moment that I had to put it down to get on with the more mundane realities of my existence. ‘You must read it’ is what I really want to say!
Some years ago, when I attended a Scottish Library Association dinner, I was seated with a Scotsman who, while consuming his third double Scotch, was castigating me for eating carrots, on the grounds that they are very calorific. “Ye need to watch carrots,” he said. “They make ye fat.” (To save readers of this blog the chore of carrying out any additional research, I am reliably informed by Google that a large carrot contains about eighty calories and an average cooked helping about forty. A double Scotch contains 110.)
I was reminded about this conversation during my visit to Glasgow, from which I have just returned. One of the most endearing things about the Scots is their love of all kinds of ‘unhealthy’ food and drink and their ability to justify this completely with no trace of guilt whatsoever. When I worked for a Scottish library supplier in Dumfries (not for nothing the home of the deep-fried Mars Bar – and I understand that ice-cream and frozen butter have now been added to the town’s repertoire), we had a fully-working canteen staffed by two stalwart ladies who believed that the way to cope with Scottish winters was to look after the inner man (or woman). The menu was always robust: lasagne and chips, pie and chips, and mince, neeps and tatties (often also including chips, though I never experienced triple potato dishes on the same plate in Scotland, as I have several times in Ireland), always followed by a pudding.
Visiting customers were also fed by the canteen, although they took their meals in the boardroom. On one occasion I suggested that a bowl of salad might make a nice change for some of our less valiant guests, instead of tatties or chips. The ladies looked at me in horror: “Salad? In the winter, hen?” The compromise was substantial plated salads (ham and egg pie, Scotch eggs or cold beef) with potato salad and… chips. The two canteen ladies were perfectly aware of health and fitness regimes, but, like most Scots of my acquaintance, simply not interested in them. “We know what we should eat,” as another Scot once said to me. “We just don’t like it.” I once discovered the canteen ladies, neither of whom was much more than five feet tall, running round the outside of the building before they served lunch. Both were scarlet in the face and dangerously out of breath. “We’re trying to get down below fourteen stone before Christmas,” explained one. “Aye, so we can have plenty to drink,” the other added.
So, by this gently circuitous route, to the main topic of today’s post, which is… ta da: TABLET! If you haven’t been to Scotland, it may be helpful to provide a definition at this point. Tablet is a cross between toffee and fudge. My guess is that it’s made mainly with lots of sugar and butter. It melts in your mouth and gives you an energy boost to die for. It’s as integral a part of Scottish life as Irn-Bru, Tunnock’s Milk Chocolate Coated Caramel Wafer Biscuit and shortbread. And at least as ‘bad’ for you.
But you wouldn’t know that either from the upright Scots attitude towards it or the name ‘tablet’ itself. Not only is the name majestic, imbued with ancient wisdom – think Moses and the ten commandments or Sumerian cuneiform script, both inscribed on tablets – but it has an authoritative ring, as if the product were essential to your health. It’s a word that conveys much more gravitas than ‘pill’, with its undertones of neurosis, hypochondria and birth control. Mention ‘tablet’ to a party of Scots men and women and they’ll know immediately what you mean: a joyous feast of what in other lands might be forbidden fruit, often consumed in quite large quantities. Full of northern promise.
Nowadays, tablet has an additional, very modern meaning: the name the IT industry has given to the small, streamlined machine with various multi-functional capabilities (Don’t ask me the difference between a tablet and a laptop, as I shall get very confused, even though I now own one of each, but I’m sure that one exists.). If anything, I feel, the advent of this chichi newcomer enhances the reputation and the possibilities of traditional Scottish tablet even further: how prescient of ancient Scots confectioners to come up with a name that would also epitomise sexy technology to upwardly-mobile thirty-something educated men and, by extension, their baffled but trusting mothers and fathers.
And hats off to the Cambridge University Press marketing team – as you would expect, no slouches when it comes to words and their meanings – for picking up the potential of both meanings of the word and, at the same time, providing joy to everyone passing by their stand at the conference by dispensing unlimited quantities of this Scottish toffee-fudge to maintain energy levels during three days of worthy but occasionally soporific talks.